What a writer Ann Patchett is. It seems I have not posted a review on this blog of the previous books of hers that I have read, which is an oversight that I can only explain by the extremely compelling yet intimate and personal feeling cultivated by Patchett in Commonwealth, State of Wonder, and now Bel Canto. With no introduction or excuse, we open in the Vice President’s residence in an unnamed Latin American country; poor, courting the CEO of a Japanese company by throwing him a birthday party where the entertainment is the guest of honour’s favourite opera singer. And then, sudden darkness. Kidnappers storm the party but their intended target, the President, has stayed home to watch his favourite soap.
And so, the kidnappers and kidnapees have to rapidly rethink their plans. The takeover settles into a siege bringing together the beautiful American opera diva, the Japanese CEO who is her biggest fan, his unassuming translator, and various other international bigwigs from France and Russia and such only there that evening to do their diplomatic duty for their country.
It is a bemusing, funny set up, but with a dark and threatening undercurrent. Patchett’s tone is almost quiet, bringing an immediate closeness with the characters and their stories. It is only later as the situation evolves that there is a brightness and broadening of scope, her tone lifts as the siege wears on. It is a very theatrical setting, as the story does not move from outside of the Vice President’s residence. At times it is claustrophobic: a wealthy residence in a poor country, no one can go outside, with poor, illiterate, dialect-speaking guards overseeing some of the most privileged people in their country.
And it is absorbing, too. There is an intimacy within these four walls, as Patchett’s narration shifts focus between the main characters we see an evolution not just of the situation but of the characters and their relationships forced into this unreal, timeless space of imprisonment.
“Mr. Hosokawa nodded. He spoke to her with great honesty, the kind two people use after a lifetime of knowing one another. But what was a lifetime? This afternoon? This evening? The kidnappers had reset the clocks and no one knew a thing about time anymore.”
In this world of unreality, Patchett has crafted the most believable and delightful characters. Her reveal is understated but definitive, stunning in what it shows. There is observational humour about this frankly silly situation, as well as deep meditations on the very human nature of desire and yearning. It was both delightful and engaging to dead.
Patchett writes with emotional tenderness and intelligent observation, generous and inventive. Bel Canto is a very cleverly paced, suspenseful novel, inventive in its set up and execution. I loved this odd, liberating novel.